Parents often complain that kids grow up too fast these days. But many adults, it seems, aren't growing up at all. In an ongoing series, the National Post comment pages have been probing this annoying phenomenon. In today's final instalment, Robert Fulford explains the social construct we now call "the teenager."
The word "teenagers" appeared in the late 1940s, signalling the arrival of a new tribe of young people, the replacements for what were once called adolescents. These self-important newcomers were not just adults-in-training, as young people had been through history. They had a unique identity and some independence. They had money to spend and they wanted to spend it as they chose.
This transformation in the style of youth led eventually to the concerns expressed in the current Post series about delayed adulthood and the reluctance to accept the responsibilities of maturity.
At the start, it was largely the work of advertisers. Eaton's branded itself "The Store for Young Canada" and sponsored high school dances. Teenagers adopted their own dress codes, their own movies, their own language and of course their own music. W.H. Auden, ever alert to changing language, picked up "teenagers" (originally it had a hyphen) in 1947 and used it in his poem, The Age of Anxiety.
Retailers steered this campaign but it couldn't have worked without the post-war prosperity that made parents feel generous. Remembering their own meagre lives in the Depression, the parents of the 1950s and 1960s sponsored unprecedented levels of mobility and freedom for their young.
That was not entirely a blessing. Some teenagers found it hard to live up the new social demands. In 1960 Kingsley Amis, in his comic novel Take a Girl Like You, wrote: "Jenny thought to herself that here she was nearly 21, and instead of having been a teenager all she had managed to do was spend a certain amount of time getting from the age of 12 to the age of 20."
That's roughly how I felt. But millions were delighted to embrace their new role, with its simple-minded culture. They liked it so much they clung to it long past age 20. And as the first teens became parents and then grandparents, the media steadily lowered the quality of culture in the direction of childishness.
Today, much of the culture and journalism directed at the young seems designed for those suffering from attention deficit disorder. Animal House, with John Belushi, a celebration of brainless frat boys, was a bit of a sensation in 1978. Today, it would be just one more Jim Carrey movie, unnoticed by everyone except his devotees.
Adults, being former teenagers themselves, find it natural to join the young in their pleasures. Michael Chabon, the 46-year-old author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, has written Manhood for Amateurs, about what makes a good father. "It's about emotional presence," he said the other day in an interview. Being there for your kids is important. He went on to say that it's a good thing to play video games with them. He's annoyed when anyone suggests that this might not be a bright idea.
Today, many young men seem to make a life policy of refusing to grow up. "Basement boys" can be seen hanging about the family house at age 35, wondering why their ancient parents look so worried. Something about maturity arouses in young men a combination of apathy and fear. It's hard to remember that, in previous eras, young people longed to escape their parents and set up on their own.
If asked, the young may say that they can't make up their mind what to do with their lives. There are too many choices. What most of humanity has always yearned for, the freedom to choose one's own way, strikes many of the young as a burden.
The basement boys also demonstrate an often forgotten truth: A sense of duty, even when painful, is a necessity in human life. When I wrote about this last year one of my readers commented, "What are we without real and urgent responsibility? Small and insignificant, useless."
Recent articles and books have claimed that we made a terrible mistake by belittling the value of craftsmanship and manual labour. Matthew B. Crawford, a University of Chicago PhD in political philosophy, argues in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work for the value of extending "our moral imagination to people who are conventionally beneath serious regard." He imagines workers as a "yeoman aristocracy" and wants to revive our ancient belief in "work that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful." A movement based on that kind of thinking might be one way out of the social trap we began stumbling toward when the teenager was invented.